Shall we get started?

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. ― Robert Frost

I am honored to post some of the most beautifully written, transcendent poems by my favorite writers, along with short statements that they have generously provided about the emotional experiences of writing them.

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MR. ROGERS MADE ME FAT

by Collin Kelley

It was after Make-Believe,
when I was vulnerable.
He made the peanut butter jar
appear on his kitchen table
between the Museum-Go-Round
and Daniel Striped Tiger’s Clock,
dipped in a spoon, lifted it
to his mouth like sacrament,
proclaimed it good.

Wishing for Someplace Else,
I wanted to please him,
so I scampered to the kitchen,
climbed the counter to the top
shelf and found my first addiction.
As the cold metal touched
my tongue and salty sweet
the roof of my mouth, I was hooked.

The empty jars would stretch
to the moon now, Fred is dead,
and the magic Trolley still runs
on schedule, perpetually empty.
It disappears into a hole in the wall
faster than Lady Elaine Fairchild’s
boomerang-toomerang-soomerang
and I’m too tall and wide to follow.


From Render, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013

What the Poet Says About the Poem: “Mr. Rogers Made Me Fat” was both easy and difficult to write. Easy because it’s one of those rare poems that changed very little from the initial draft; difficult because addressing the issue of my weight was not something I relished writing about in the first place. I obliquely referenced my weight in other poems, but never head-on and with an origin story. I freely admit to being an emotional eater, but I’m also a lover of food. When I was depressed, I ate to self-medicate. When I was happy, I ate to celebrate. As a writer and editor, most of my days and nights were spent sitting at a desk or on the sofa, so exercise was not something I had any time for or interest in. And I really was addicted to peanut butter. I was eating a family size jar of JIF every couple of days and chasing it with two liter Cokes. From that first taste of peanut butter after watching Mr. Rogers, I could not stop eating it. I don’t totally blame kindly Fred Rogers for my addiction, but he was my gateway. If Mr. Rogers said eating peanut butter was good, then it must be true A few months after the poem appeared in my collection, Render, my father died from complications caused by diabetes. He was heavy most of his life. It should have been a wakeup call, but I kept on eating. When I was finally diagnosed with diabetes, I was a shocking 309 pounds. I couldn’t believe it. I have since lost more than 100 pounds, thanks to diet and exercise. I no longer eat peanut butter and my diabetes is in remission. But even writing this, I can still see Mr. Rogers putting a spoon into the jar of peanut butter and my mouth waters. I am no longer that impressionable child looking for praise or recognition to fill the void left by emotionally distant parents. And yet it still shocks me – baffles me – that a two minute segment from a children’s television program left such a lingering mark on me. Stretch marks, yes, but also how it shaped me as a person and an artist.

About Collin Kelley

FRAGMENTS

by Stephen Dobyns

Now there is a slit in the blue fabric of air.
His house spins faster. He holds down books,
chairs; his life and its objects fly upward:
vanishing black specks in the indifferent sky.

The sky is a torn piece of blue paper.
He tries to repair it, but the memory
of death is like paste on his fingers
and certain days stick like dead flies.

Say the sky goes back to being the sky
and the sun continues as always. Now,
knowing what you know, how can you not see
thin cracks in the fragile blue vaults of air.

My friend, what can I give you or darkness
lift from you but fragments of language,
fragments of blue sky. You had three
beautiful daughters and one has died.


From Velocities: New and Selected Poems: 1966-1992 (Poets, Penguin)

What the writer says about the poem: I wrote the poem “Fragments” for Donald Murray who was a professor of English and Journalism at the University of New Hampshire and who was a close friend during the two years I taught there from 1971 to 1973. He was a big, booming Scot who wrote very small poems. Toward the end of that period, his daughter Ann, who I think was seventeen, contracted some sort of fatal flu that before that time was only contracted by children. Indeed, she was the oldest person who had caught it until then. She lay in the hospital for a week or so, and shortly after she became brain dead Don turned off the machine that kept her body alive. Don was very close to his children and this was a terrible blow to both him and his wife Minnie Mae. He had been in the war and had been an MP during the Battle of the Bulge. Often it seemed that every long conversation with him wound down to his memory of riding in a Jeep over the frozen bodies of his friends. After Ann died, he rarely spoke of the Battle of the Bulge, and instead nearly every long conversation wound down to the moment when flicked the switch of the machine that kept Ann’s body alive. It was dreadful to watch and feel his on-going grief. I tried to write a poem for him for a year, but without success. Then, one summer at Yaddo, the poem came very quickly when I was sitting on a window seat in the music room. It was done, except for some fussing, in less than ten minutes. It was as if the poem had taken control of my pen and written itself. Now Don and Minnie Mae have been dead for many years, and I don’t know what became of his other two daughters. More about Stephen Dobyns.

MY MOTHER’S FUNERAL

by Ira Sadoff

The rabbi doesn’t say she was sly and peevish,
fragile and voracious, disheveled, voiceless and useless,
at the end of her very long rope. He never sat beside her
like a statue while radio voices called to her from God.
He doesn’t say how she mamboed with her broom,
staggered, swayed, and sighed afternoons,
till we came from school to feed her. She never frightened him,
or bent to kiss him, sponged him with a fever, never held his hand,
bone-white, bolted doors, and shut the blinds. She never sent
roaches in a letter, he never saw her fall down stairs, dead sober.
He never saw her sweep and murmur, he never saw
spiderwebs she read as signs her life was over, long before
her frightened husband left, long before
they dropped her in a box, before her children turned
shyly from each other, since they never learned to pray.
If I must think of her, if I can spare her moment on the earth,
I’ll say she was one of God’s small sculptures,
polished to a glaze, one the wind blew off a shelf.


From Grazing, University of Illinois Press, 1998

What the writer says about the poem: “My Mother’s Funeral” was, in part, an act of imagination: when I wrote the poem my mother was still alive. I had a difficult (and difficult to decipher) relationship with my mother, exacerbated by my father’s abandoning our family when I was thirteen and my sister was six. My mother had always been phobic – the world was a dangerous place; we moved every couple of years, sometimes because she saw silverfish in the bathtub of our suburban house. I understood, only retrospectively, that my mother had become paralyzingly depressed from at least the time my father left and probably before (since she’d put on quite a bit of weight and was awake late at night). She became agoraphobic, virtually never leaving the house (though she held secretarial jobs for six months at a time after I left for college). She was so hurt, angry, and insecure that she needed to triangulate me into her ally. I was in my forties and she’d still ask me on the phone what did I think of a man who left his wife and children like that? I had to share her rage so I didn’t let myself feel the hurt that would trigger some of that rage. She didn’t have the resources to find out what it might have felt like for me: indeed I came to understand that whatever feelings I had mattered less than my being there for her. In part working 30 hours a week at a supermarket while in high school, in part being a good boy, a “child genius” (as she called me). No doubt this helped me become self-reliant, a good caretaker, but no doubt the experience damaged my sense of self-worth, and it took me a long time to believe my feelings might matter to anyone else. Or to feel anger.

That’s a long way of saying that I wrote the poem in the late 1990s when my mother disowned me (sending back my degrees) because I had pressured her to come visit me. Whenever I asked, there never was a good time. She hadn’t met my wife, my step-children (after things healed, several years later, we met once in a waffle house near her apartment, which was attached to my sister’s house).She never did let me into her house and I saw her twice in the forty years I lived in Maine. So I was wrestling at the time with how to live with the possibility that she’d be dead to me. In the poem, my work was to portray her as honestly and compassionately as I could without burying the darkness that surrounded our life together and apart. When I read “My Mother’s Funeral” at readings and a number of people expressed gratitude in helping them with their grief, I didn’t have the heart to tell them she was still alive. Later, I razored the poem out of a collection so when she saw the book she wouldn’t be subjected to the poem.

Did the poem help me heal? Perhaps mostly in the way that when I’m writing authentically, not by fact but by feel and a respect for the musical voice in a poem, when I keep some sense of scale about my own pleasure and pain, some sense of relation, I have the satisfaction poetry has always given me, which is a more open heart and a commitment to digging deep. In “My Mother’s Funeral,” one question led to another, another qualification, intensification, or change of mind. My aspiration for a poem where the stakes are high. And I found after that much less of an urge to process my childhood in poems or in life. More about Ira Sadoff.

Turning Thirty-Six

by Adrian Blevins

I’ve never told the story of my mourning body. It’s not much of a story.
It’s a sickbed story made of graveyard refuse.
I achieved my mourning body with starvation and blotch.

I rejected water, I cast off wine,
I sat among weeds below brown finches crooning and said deplete, deplete,
deplete. I loved my mourning body so immeasurably

I’d lie vigilant in bed and trace the blade of each protruding bone,
remembering the husband who’d left and the mother who’d left
and their psycho-goblins in the psycho air.

Or maybe I’d remember the unholy remains of a spectral mare
some turn-of-the-century farmer had tossed in a shallow creek
between the evergreen ridges of my grandmother’s tree farm.

My sister and I would stand there, staring at the pelvis
or the skull, touching or licking the bleached shoulder blades.
We knew nothing, then. We were just children, then.

Oh, we knew death was out there, flying overhead like a yellow canary
while bellowing in the trees like a brass trombone,
but what could we have known of the births that would take our bodies from us?

No matter what, the bodies of girls will fatten on semen and burgeon with milk
while the fathers with zilch in their hands amble off drunk, broke, brawling, blind.
In their divergent dreams do the febrile men see us as we once were,

when we were still little birds in the water? Do they carry us in the pockets
of their hearts? Do they take us out and throw us down
while we rock like hags in the deadbeat dark?


From The Brass Girl Brouhaha, Ausable Press, 2003

What the writer says about the poem: I think the lyric poem is the best artistic form for grief because it knows how to manage feelings—to somehow both express and contain them so they can be as perceived in what I’m going to call an “authentic” way, though that word’s not exactly right, leaving unsaid as it does how completely unique feelings also are. Still, I think W.H. Auden was on to something when he said that “poetry might be best defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” “Turning Thirty-Six” is an early divorce poem. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of these. Each one taught me something new. “Turning Thirty-Six” taught me, I think, that our losses accumulate over the years until we’re forced to learn to feel everything somehow doubly or triply—I had to deal with my own divorce while re-living my parents’ divorce, my dog Frodo’s death, and, you know, the understanding that everything under the sun must eventually die. This sense of accumulated loss is what the poem tries to dramatize, I think. Our losses are very sad, but at least they’re universal, and that sense of shared experience is what I love about poetry—both writing it and reading it. It helps me understand that I’m not alone, and I really need that. I would be a mess without it. More about Adrian Blevins.

The Infinite Density of Grief

by Lynn Pedersen

What no one tells you is grief
has properties: expands like a gas
to fill space and time—the four corners
of your room, the calendar
with its boxed days—
and when you think it can’t claim anything more,
collapses in on itself, a dying star,
compacting until not even a thimble
of light escapes.

Then grief sleeps, becomes
the pebble in your shoe you can almost
ignore, until a penny on a sidewalk,
dew on a leaf—
some equation detailing the relationship
between loss and minutiae
sets the whole in motion again—

your unborn child, folded and folded
into a question, or the notes
you passed in grade school
with their riddles—
What kind of room
has no windows or doors?


First published in Comstock Review. Forthcoming in the collection The Nomenclature of Small Things, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016.

What the writer says about the poem: This poem was in my thoughts for years before it took form, primarily because I had difficulty nailing down the language to express the grief of pregnancy loss. The turning point that allowed me to write this piece was a visit to the Rose Center for Earth and Space, part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As I learned about the concept of infinite density, I made a connection that the language in the museum wasn’t just talking about the universe, it also described the grief that I had been unable to express. The poem explores the properties of grief, its all-encompassing nature and its ability to return at the oddest times, triggered by the smallest things. When grief is triggered, so are all of the haunting questions such as “Why did this happen?” and “How can I keep this from happening again?”

The riddle “What kind of room/ has no windows or doors” captures the idea of grief as confining, and it also suggests a play on the words womb/room. Alternately, a room with no doors or windows might also be a space of openness and possibility, a room with no walls or ceiling. That sense of not quite knowing what something is, not being able to pin it down—of asking questions when there seem to be no answers—is the place where the poem leaves off. It is also, one could argue, a place from which everything begins. More than anything, I felt a sense of relief at having expressed the poem. Just getting to and formulating the question at the end was an accomplishment. The work of putting this one experience down on paper, and the discovery of science as metaphor, helped to focus my writing on many other poems to follow that explore the theme of loss.

“The Infinite Density of Grief” opens my forthcoming collection, The Nomenclature of Small Things. The collection explores grief, and all that it touches, through a lens of science; the poems unfold and unfold like those grade school notes. More about Lynn Pedersen.

Fragment

by A.E. Stallings

The glass does not break because it is glass,
Said the philosopher. The glass could stay
Unbroken forever, shoved back in a dark closet,
Slowly weeping itself, a colorless liquid.
The glass breaks because somebody drops it
From a height — a grip stunned open by bad news
Or laughter. A giddy sweep of grand gesture
Or fluttering nerves might knock it off the table —
Or perhaps wine emptied from it, into the blood,
Has numbed the fingers. It breaks because it falls
Into the arms of the earth — that grave attraction.
It breaks because it meets the floor’s surface,
Which is solid and does not give. It breaks because
It is dropped, and falls hard, because it hits
Bottom, and because nobody catches it.


From Hapax, Northwestern University Press, 2006

What the writer says about the poem: This was a somewhat experimental poem for me when I wrote it (probably ten years ago). The idea that a fragile glass doesn’t break because it is fragile, but because something violent happens to it (it is dropped, something hits it), was from a lecture in a physics class in college; the concept struck me and changed my perception. Waving my poetic license, I changed the physicist to a philosopher. I wanted to write about a broken heart without mentioning the word “heart”—and enjoyed the word-play that might tie the two together—“somebody drops it,” “falls hard” etc. But of course it is about any fragile vessel, it still about the actual glass, and the physicist/philosopher. On a literal plane, I have dropped my share of glasses, and I’m sure the poem was partly triggered by an actual incident of clumsiness. More about A.E. Stallings.

Stillbirth

by Laure-Anne Bosselaar

On a platform, I heard someone call out your name:
No, Laetitia, no.
It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing,
but I rushed in, searching for your face.

But no Laetitia. No.
No one in that car could have been you,
but I rushed in, searching for your face:
no longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two.

No one in that car could have been you.
Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen.
No longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two:
I sometimes go months without remembering you.

Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen:
I was told not to look. Not to get attached—
I sometimes go months without remembering you.
Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.

I was told not to look. Not to get attached.
It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing.
Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.
On a platform, I heard someone calling your name.


From A New Hunger,  Ausable Press

What the writer says about the poem: Some poems need years of revisions to find their shape, form and tone, and “Stillbirth” was one of them. It took me decades to “let it go” at last, and only because I had been able to finally distill a long, 3 page sectional poem into fewer and fewer lines. But I kept wanting to repeat some of those lines and suddenly thought of the pantoum. It’s only after the pantoum’s third draft that I felt the repetitions worked — and that some of the lines acquired a different dimension as the pantoum progressed. I could finally let the elegy that had haunted me for decades go into the world. About Laure-Anne Bosselaar.

Waiting

by George Bilgere

When the guy in the dark suit
Asks me if I want to see my mother
As she lies in the back room, waiting,
I remember her, for some reason,
In a white swimsuit, on a yellow towel
On the sand at Crystal Lake,
Pregnant with my sister,
Waiting for me to finish examining
The sleek fuselage of a minnow,
The first dead thing I had ever seen,
Before we went back to the cottage for lunch.

I remember her waiting up for my father
To come home from God knows where
In a yellow cab at 2:00 AM
And waiting for me in the school parking lot
In our old blue station wagon
When whatever it was I was practicing for
Ran late. I remember her, shoulders thrown back,
Waiting in the unemployment line, waiting
For me to call, waiting for the sweet release
In the second glass of wine
After a long day working at the convalescent hospital
Where everyone was waiting to die.

And I remember her waiting for me
At the airport when I got back from Japan,
Waiting for everything to be all right,
Waiting for her biopsy results.
Waiting.

But when the guy in the dark suit
Asks if I would like to go back
And be with her in that room where she lies
Waiting to be cremated I say No
Thank you, and turn and walk out
Onto the sunny street to join the crowd
Hustling down the sidewalk
And I look up at the beautiful
White clouds suspended above the city,
Leaving her in that room to wait alone,
For which I will not be forgiven.


This poem first appeared in The Missouri Review.

What the writer says about the poem: I suppose “Waiting” falls into that category of poems inspired by the perpetual guilt experienced by poets and pretty much the rest of human kind over the fact that once our parents are gone it’s too late to ever quite make things right with them. If only I’d done this, said that, while there was still time. Maybe all such poems are rituals of expiation, tiny confessional booths from which we emerge feeling slightly better. One problem with life–with the whole set up–is that you can’t go back and change things. Who came up with such a lousy system? Worse, the only person who can really forgive us our trespasses is, of course, us. And we can be so hard on ourselves, which is the price of honesty. So, being human, we write a poem or a song, have a glass of wine, and hope things get better. More about George Bilgere.

Folly Beach

by Christine Swint

Wet sand near breakers reflects clouds, pale sky.
I should be in heaven, but I’m not.
I want someone to crack my heart open,
make it as wide as the beach,
beating in rhythm with the waves.
I think of the Buddhist monk called One Finger
Gutei Isshi, who answered questions about
the Dharma by raising one finger, a silent signal
I imagine like the icons of St. John
the Baptist gesturing toward God.

Gutei Isshi once cut off a student’s finger
to teach the boy a lesson. As the boy ran,
clutching his fallen finger, One Finger
called to him. When the boy turned his head,
One Finger pointed toward the sky.
They say he stopped the boy’s mind.

If Gutei Isshi strolled beside me,
his saffron robes trailing in the surf,
he’d reach his pointer finger
under my sternum, strum the aorta,
pluck the ventricle, and then,
in a curl of a digit, he’d dig out my heart
and fling it into the bottle-green waves.

What I want in place of a heart: a chest cavity
as wide as the space between stars.

Pelicans skim the water for fish, gulls call,
a toddler runs down shore from her mother,
jellyfish spill on the wet sand, breezes
carry the scent of sea muck. In the heaven
I desire, my skin dissolves in the salt air
and the sun steams my skeleton to a mist.


First published in Flycatcher Journal

What the writer says about the poem: A few years ago, when I was recovering from a turbulent bout of depression and anxiety, I took a trip to Folly Beach in South Carolina with my sister and her daughter, a toddler at the time. The place was beautiful, but I was feeling miserable inside. I thought of a quote I had read by Emerson, something to the effect that the beauty of nature is a reflection of the beauty in one’s mind, and I realized I just couldn’t see the beauty because of the pain I was experiencing. I needed the intercession of this radical Buddhist monk, Gutei Ishi, to slice my heart out and stop my mind. Gutei Ishi comes from a line of mystics and religious figures sometimes referred to as holy fools, people who use extreme measures to shock a person into enlightenment. By invoking the name of this holy fool, I feel the weightlessness of bliss by the last line of the poem. That’s the joy of poetry–I start by imagining a monk snatching my heart out and tossing it into the waves, but I end up imagining myself into a place of expansion and wellbeing. To create something, we have to imagine it first. 

About Christine Swint.

A Poem for my Father, 1980

by Rick Campbell

You don’t know me.
Women. We never talk about.
Drugs, we ignore.
The war: remember Vietnam?
I would have run
but my number was too high.
So I wandered away
and crossed the country
like I had reason.
Now this. Poems. It’s stranger
than the long hair and the house
in West Palm Beach where
every five minutes another person
came down the stairs
and you stopped asking,
Does he live here too?
So you don’t understand.
Others talk about their first sonnet
at age ten. Or poetry they had to read
like piano lessons. Not us.
You want to know when
this will all pay off.
It matures like an insurance policy.
If I live to write a poem
young girls will dance in my arms
like pension checks. Even critics
will love me. The County Times
will hint of scandal. The old neighbors
will shun your house completely.
And you, though you still won’t
understand, will hold the poem
in your hand and look
across the river for proof.


From The Traveler’s Companion, Black Bay Books

What the writer says about the poem: I wrote that poem a long time ago, in the late 70’s when I was student at UF in Gainesville. I don’t know why I dated it 1980. I was always angry at my father and I just imagined that he would react and say what he said if he had ever visited me when I lived with a bunch of people in a big old house in West Palm Beach. However, I always liked the idea that in this poem I sort of told him off, that I sarcastically implied that he was not smart enough to understand poetry, and I like that the end of the poem is a little bit like a curse. All that had gone wrong between us must have had something to do with my writing poetry and it would come back to bite him. I never really told him off. I never reconciled with him before he died either. But, it seems like I must have imagined someday giving him a copy of my book with the poem in it. What does that say? That I wanted him to read my poetry? I am sure that I did. I don’t think he ever saw the poem. I do think that I felt better because I imagined that I told him off. Someone, maybe Richard Hugo, said he liked that he created a braver better, version of himself in his poems. Maybe me too. More about Rick Campbell